Nationals' survival depends on new agendaby News WeeklyNews Weekly
, June 15, 2002
To use an old bucolic cliché, it seems that it never rains but it pours for our second oldest political party, the National Party of Australia.
Having just about seen off the One Nation juggernaut, clearly the greatest threat to its political presence in many decades, now it seems the National Party's ally in Federal politics wants to get rid of it completely.
Liberal Senator Nick Minchin, a close ally of Prime Minister John Howard, recently floated the idea of a Liberal and National marriage as a solution to costly three-cornered contests (between National, Labor, and Liberal Parties), and as a better way of utilising conservative resources.
The Liberal Party senator sees a merger as a means of dragging some of those "left"-leaning Nationals (on economic issues) across to the sensible and economic rationalist right.Decline
An astute observer of the political scene, Minchin has watched the gradual decline of the Nationals and the emergence of the Liberal Party as the dominant regional party in Australia, and he believes that on demographics alone the National Party is doomed.
In practically every contest in recent years when a National Party MP retires and the three parties contest the vacant seat, the Nationals are generally trounced.
At the 2001 election, Tim Fischer's old seat of Farrer went to the Liberals, despite the Labor Party's best endeavours behind-the-scenes to help the Nationals retain the seat.
Just over the border from Farrer in Victoria the Nationals now hold only two seats in the House of Representatives: Gippsland (held by Peter McGauran for 19 years) in the east and Mallee (held by John Forrest for nine years) in the west of the State.
Given the rise of the independents in both those regions at a State level, it would be reasonable to predict that should either MP retire, the Nationals would be wiped out in Victoria, which in turn would see the Nationals retreat further north.
Already, the vultures of the Victorian Liberal Party are circling around the third National Party MP, Senator Julian McGauran. There are many senior Liberals who would like McGauran dropped from a winnable position on the Coalition Senate ticket at the next election, or alternatively cut out altogether and have a Liberal-only Senate election ticket instead.
So while Minchin talks about a happy union between the Coalition parties, the harsher political truth is that the Liberals are coming after the Nationals anyway. The hidden message from Minchin is: surrender now with dignity and on your own terms, or be destroyed.
But Minchin, who significantly comes from South Australia where there is no National Party to speak of, fails to understand the complexity and changeability of the rural constituency. One Nation, for example, was never so much a political party as a political phenomenon, and the inarticulate yet strangely charismatic non-politician Pauline Hanson was the focal point of that phenomenon, rather than a leader in any traditional sense.
One Nation was simply the final eruption of years of rural frustration and anger at city-centric politics, at economic rationalism gone mad, and at genuine injustice and hardship.
The National Party did not destroy One Nation, and those inside the party who believe this to be so are deluding themselves. Rather the rag-tag outfit destroyed itself through infighting and incompetence (and possibly illegality, depending on current court cases).
At the same time the wise heads in the National Party know that, if it were to be amalgamated into the Liberal Party as suggested by Senator Nick Minchin, One Nation Mark II, or at least another rural party, would start the next day.
Labor has already introduced its own Country Labor brand, which so far is not much more than that - a name tag to win votes. But should the National Party fold, Labor would surely move quickly to exploit the vacuum, building its rural base, and developing policies to attract votes.
Then there is the lunatic right which would also quickly emerge as a political force in various guises.
As an expert on far-right groups in Australia, Queensland Senator Ron Boswell knows full well that, should the Nationals call it a day and simply merge with the Liberals, a new ultra-conservative party or group of parties would quickly rise in its place.
Whatever the faults of the Nationals, Senator Boswell argues, it manages to keep extremist and racist elements out of Parliament.
Senator Boswell also points out that there is a deep philosophical chasm between Nationals like him and many Liberals (he actually cited New South Wales Senator Marise Payne as an example), and that it would be impossible to accommodate such divergent opinions within the one party.
Senator Boswell is right: there is a place for a rural-based party in Australia, despite the falling ratio between city and country populations and the unfortunate preference of Australians to hug the coastline. The real question then is what does that party stand for, and whose interests does it truly want to serve?
And the correct answer to that is the key to the Nationals' survival.